Since the start of last year a team of geographers and disability advisors from nine Higher Education Institutions, under the umbrella heading of the Geographical Discipline Network, have been working together in the Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities project, funded by HEFCE's Improving Provision for Disabled Students Funding Programme. One of the major outputs of this project was a national conference held on Tuesday 8 May at the London Headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers.
About sixty participants met to address what is really the over-arching aim of the project - to identify, promote and transfer the principles of good practices of how to provide learning support for disabled students undertaking fieldwork and related activities. The conference, chaired by Rita Gardner, Director of the RGS-IBG, was structured around workshops on major areas of impairment - mobility impairment (led by Vince Gardiner and Naseem Anwar), d/Deafness or hearing impairment (Gordon Clark), hidden disabilities and dyslexia (Brian Chalkley and Judith Waterfield), blindness or visual impairment (Ifan Shepherd), and mental health (Jacky Birnie and Annie Grant). Tim Hall and Mick Healey also led a workshop on general issues relating to disabled students and fieldwork. The sessions served to introduce participants to another important output of the project - six web-based guides. These are available in draft form at http://www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn/disabil/index.htm, and the project team welcomes any comments on these.
The plenary session at the start of the day set the scene for these workshops. Mike Adams, Principal Co-ordinator of the National Disability Team, provided the UK context, revealing the fact in so doing that but for an unfortunate decision made by an admissions tutor, he too might have been a geographer. Then Mick Healey, Carolyn Roberts and Jonathan Leach provided an overview of issues arising from the project - in particular stressing that the social model of disability provides a better approach than the medical one, and that a totally inclusive approach demands consideration of a very much wider range of issues and concerns than might at first seem to be the case.
After the workshops, plenary sessions provided a forum for wider debate. Glynda Easterbrook gave a fascinating account of the Open University's approach to supporting geology students with impairments. Another perspective on this was provided by a written account from Alan Totham of his experiences as a disabled student undertaking geological fieldwork with the Open University. Alan was unfortunately unable to be present in person, but his account amply testified to how effective the approach had been. Suresh Paul gave an account of the developmental design work being carried out by Adventure Design at Brunel University, to devise equipment facilitating the participation of people with disability in outdoor activities and sports. Finally, Jonathan Leach raised issues relevant at the institutional level, pointing out that self-declarations of disability can only be reliable if the environment is a supportive and secure one, that there are issues of resources, and that good practice in providing support for the disabled is often simply good practice for providing support for everyone. In the final plenary discussion, Brian Chalkley led a debate concerning how the issues identified can continue to be progressed by the National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.
So was the meeting a success? At one level, yes. It provided a very necessary forum for the exchange of ideas, and dissemination of good practice. This was helped by the organisation of the programme, although the accommodation at the RGS-IBG was far from ideal when the programme included discussion sessions in small groups, and participants with a wide range of physical impairments. The promised improvements will be much welcomed. But at another level, the conference served to highlight what a long way there is still to go in ensuring that everything that we do is fully inclusive, for everyone. Only about 40% of the participants were practising teachers, most of the rest being advisors in this area. The challenge for the future is to ensure that the web-based guides receive maximum exposure, and that the necessary attitudes and knowledge get right to the people where they can make a real difference - the lecturers who have to provide the learning support, and the managers of that process.
Liverpool John Moores University
Text from Mike Adams' presentation 'Supporting the learning of disabled students in HE: the UK context'
Providing Learning Support for d/Deaf or Hearing-impaired Students
Providing Learning Support for Students with Mobility Problems
Providing Learning Support for Blind and Visually-impaired Students
Disabled Students and Fieldwork: from exclusion to inclusion
Additional reports from the workshops and plenary sessions will be available shortly.
Page updated 4 June 2001